Chapter 7: Discovery
The trip to the capital of Carnelian was swift and silent. Each of the men in the party rode silently, consumed by their thoughts. King Jashud peeled off to his kingdom so as to warn them of the anticipated onslaught. He pledged to join the Council with all haste and none doubted his resolve in the matter.
The events of the previous couple of days had stung the usually bombastic ruler. While easily irritated he seemed to have been deeply moved by what had happened. The surprise at the Pass of Fellicore caught him completely unprepared. The aggressive man had not faced any type of conflict in a long time. Now not only did he have to deal with the loss of his men but also the deaths of his friend King Halek and High Steward Alline of Carnelian. Worse still, the man had the real fear that the ambush singalled the beginning of something even more dangerous. A conflict where only one side would prevail seemed to be marching steadily towards them. He wondered as he rode off if he was up to the challenge.
As the remainder of the party traveled through the land the same people who had come out to cheer them only days before now stared silently when they moved by. Instinctively they knew something bad had happened. A heavy spirit, like storm clouds, traveled in the wake of the once proud group.
Mitt Cela seemed unaware of this or anything else going on around him instead being absorbed in thought. His concern was for Hai’asi and the others left behind. The somber man also spent a fair amount of time wondering how he’d gotten himself into this dilemma.
The loner’s actions seemed to be going against an earlier pledge to not involve himself in the affairs of man. But the pledge had been born out of past hurts rather than a desire to be alone. In truth, Mitt Cela deeply desired to fit in, to belong to something.
Years before he’d been a ranger, a revered tracker and hunter. Then an incident he’d long since blocked from his conscious thoughts took that away from him. As years past, he drifted away from society. From there, separating himself became easy. His current vocation as a bounty hunter became the only thing left for him. This aided his desire to be left alone since few wanted to associate with such a person. Bounty hunters were viewed as being outside the law for the most part, doing the jobs none with any sense of honor would perform. Yet in the heart of Mitt Cela a more noble character strongly beat.
The day he had come across the remnants of a destroyed village on the border of Ja’Sper, Mitt Cela knew he couldn’t turn aside. Part of him though cried out to not become involved, to run, that it was none of his affair. Initially he thought to turn north and move out of the Shires, away from the building trouble. Unable to look away from the wanton destruction, the injustice of what had happened burned within him.
Almost by instinct he began to follow in the wake of the devastation, unable to turn away. Still an expert tracker, he had quickly picked up the trail. In reality a novice could have found the dark horde since they cut a wide path leaving nothing standing behind. So Mitt Cela closed the gap in short order. What the bounty hunter saw during that period not only sickened him but also steeled his resolve. He couldn’t understand what would drive creatures to wreak the mayhem he’d witnessed. The man who had voluntarily chosen a life of seclusion and separation now instead became determined to aid where he could.
Catching the end of the horde, Mitt Cela had looked for an opportunity to strike decisively. When they deployed into the Pass of Fellicore, he moved into an advantageous position above though too late to stop their plot. Seeing the troops from the Confederation entering into the waiting ambush he attempted to signal them using a piece of reflective glass. Surprised when no one seemed to react, he could only watch the horrifying onslaught unleashed. Moving into position, the bounty hunter looked for an opportunity to attack. Discovering the archers of the horde to his front he found his opportunity. With bow and sword he killed some while scattering the rest. By now the bounty hunter disappeared and the fierce heart of the ranger beat instead. So after firing upon those on the floor he rode down into the fray, trusting his fate to providence.
Now here he was, bound to these people, and to the man he had left behind. While uneasy about the future he did have a strange feeling of contentment. For the first time in years he belonged to something and his life had purpose.
A groan broke the bounty hunter’s thoughts.
Mitt Cela looked over to the prostrate regal tied into his saddle on the horse beside him. Prince Adonijah had not died in the attack, the one bright spot in the whole sorry affair. When Mitt Cela rode down the hill he spied a slight movement by the brightly dressed man lying on the ground. Though he didn’t recognize him, the though of this wounded man being left to those savages spurred Mitt Cela to ride to his aid.
While weak, and in extreme pain, the prince was alive. But could they get him back to the capital in time to save his life?
The group stopped only briefly to refresh themselves and rest the horses, then pushed on. Time of the essence, they could afford no delay. Some secretly thought it might already be too late.
In short order the column clattered through the gates of the Royal Castle at Ammon Ramlah, the capital of Carnelian and swung into action.
First, the queen was informed of what had happened. She immediately summoned the Council in her name with all possible haste. The swiftest riders were sent to the four-corners of the Confederation to call the leadership all together.
Pier Tiglath, an officer of Carnelian, who had been with them at the Pass of Fellicore quickly organized two hundred and fifty men from the Royal Guard, with plans for more to follow when mustered. He set off immediately to reinforce the troops left behind at the stone bridge. The man knew that if the dark horde were alllowed to cross the river they would have a free run into his shire and his home.
With word already spreading, delegations began to arrive before the end of the day. Confusion reigned as panic and indecision intermixed. This was a new experience for the nobles of the land. None had faced anything more serious than brigands before so the anxiety the news created overwhelmed the comfortable rulers. Beyond anything they had planned for or dreamed could happen, the strain of this new reality reared its ugly head quickly among the leaders.
Queen Refinnej did her best to keep the people united in the ways she had always contributed in the past. She encouraged and smiled, she listened but this situation called for more than simple solutions. Unfortunately, the Queen of Carnelian was no politician or diplomat so the unease grew into panic.
None were stepping up to fill the void left by Alline. Even those who hadn’t liked the dead administrator now grudgingly admitted his contribution. Without the high steward the group seemed lost.
It took another day and a half before all the Shires were represented and the Council could begin. Some good news had also arrived from Tiglath that the enemy remained contained thus far and seemed to be making no serious attempts to cross the bridge. Rather the dark horde appeared content to pin the defenders there. On the other hand, reports were coming in as well of attacks and incursions all along the border of the Tartarus Mountains, spilling out into the surrounding plains. Like a dark cloud choking out the sun, the western lands were slowly being consumed.
Fear gripped the Confederation of the Shires as their mysterious foe’s goal seemed to be little besides abject destruction.
The din of voices in the Council Chamber made it impossible for anyone to hear unless side-by-side. Rich, mahogany-paneled walls muted the volume somewhat but still it was hard to understand any specifics. People were talking in quick and excited tones, sharing stories and conjectures. An almost electric energy surged through the assembly. Though time to begin, a vacuum of leadership existed. With no natural succession it became unclear who would bring the group together. Several kings stood to speak but none carried the respect of the majority to lead. With discussion beginning to degenerate into a series of side conversations, the gathering threatened to break up before it began.
The crystal clear voice of Queen Refinnej rang out above all the others in the Council Chamber. The commanding air of the declaration caused the shocked kings and nobles to fall into a hush. The queen had never done anything like this before so the surprise to those gathered was understandable.
Refinnej had decided to speak rather than defer when no clear leadership rose up from the remnant. The sting of not speaking before the recent tragedy stuck with her. Alline had been right, Ahriman and Prince Adonijah had been overly eager so now they were facing the consequences of her silence. The thought ate at her and she vowed to never show that type of weakness again. If none would lead for the good of all, she would.
With great dignity, Refinnej, Queen of Carnelian, stood confidently to address the gathered. By her side Princess Rebekah stood also, an equal look of determination on her pretty face. The scribes of Carnelian raised their writing styluses in anticipation of her words. A murmur still persisted but rather than speak she cast a steady, piercing, gaze upon the room with her deep blue eyes. While beautiful, the men assembled suddenly realized this was a woman of great strength, not one to be trifled with.
Cowed into submission the room fell silent other than the crack of the wood burning in the large stone open-hearth fireplace.
“Gentlemen” she began in a firm voice, “I will not trouble you with reviewing the recent events in our Confederation. You know them as well as I do. I will also not insult you by speaking of the gravity of this situation as I think we all know that too.”
No one would make eye contact with the suddenly imposing monarch.
“You are the ruling council of our lands and you are the leaders of your shires. A terrible threat is before us, that is obvious. To you the people look for swift leadership and decisive action rather than senseless bickering.”
She paused, letting the words sink in. “To you they cry out for a response to what’s going on,” she continued. “So I ask what shall it be?”
Those in the chamber looked away, stung by what had been said. The truth of the statement was evident but would these so used to getting their own way respond?
King Naeman of Sardonyx spoke first. “Queen Refinnej, though I appreciate your compassion and desire for a response I must temper your apparent haste in this matter,” the leader let his words hang in the air. “I will grant this appears to be a deadly foe but do we know that they desire to sweep across our lands? We don’t. What do we know? Precious little,” he accused. “Before we run off we need to know more of this situation.”
“That’s easy for you to say sitting in the east with two shires between you and them!” thundered King Jashud who’d finally returned from making his own defensive preparations. “I and the others are facing attack which even now is going on. I, for one, will not allow my lands to suffer the same fate as Ja’Sper. We must not talk, we must act now!”
The heads of King Machir of Jacinth and King Arod of Amethyst bobbed vigorously in agreement.
“And what happened when some went off prematurely?” Naeman countered. “The death of Alline, a wounding of Prince Adonijah from which he may not recover and the slaughter of many valuable men.” The Sardonyx king looked condescendingly at Jashud. “Folly and needless loss of life I say. No, I propose we study this situation so as to have a balanced response.”
Jashud was unmoved by the implication of the proposal. “There’s no time to study. We’re already into this! Besides, with Ahriman’s betrayal of us who knows how advanced his plan may be. He may have been plotting against us with these fiends for months, even years perhaps. We don’t have the time to discuss and pontificate. We must raise an army, all of the Confederation,” it was his turn to look accusingly at some, “and meet this threat head on.”
“I am with Naeman in this matter.”
A new, unemotional voice was now raised at the Council. Ashbel, King of Chrysolite, had spoken. Though thin featured, the probing eyes of Ashbel made others shift their glance. Despite a pale complexion and thinning hair, it was his smooth and commanding voice that generally trapped people into listening to his course of thought.
“Our response must be carefully measured,” he suggested, “to ensure the good of the Shires as a whole. That being said, you may be mistaken Jashud, due to the tragedy you suffered, about Ahriman,” he paused, “and about other things. We do not know what happened with the otherwise faithful advisor. To accuse him of treason, without allowing him to respond, is unfair and goes against the tenants of our land. Besides, we have a high degree of peace and wealth now, which we must not allow to be interrupted. That would be even more devastating than the assaults which some now face.”
Jashud glared at the Chrysolite king. “Mistaken? I think not.” Barely able to contain his foul temper the stocky man paced around then asked more as a statement than question, “What then pray, exactly, are you saying?”
“He’s saying,” interrupted Shupham of Emer’Ald, “that our primary purpose in this matter is to ensure that our universal prosperity and economic good is maintained.”
“It’s difficult to prosper when your lands are being ravaged and your people terrorized,” King Machir countered, anger evident on his face.
“You are quite right Machir when you say this.” Once more Ashbel spoke, picking up where he left off. “We cannot allow this instability to remain. It is bad for harmony and trade. But, to rise up in arms may compound the problem and at the very least would be an inefficient use of our resources.”
A few began to grasp where he was going with this line of reasoning but were loath to speak against the persuasive king.
“Therefore I propose that we seek to negotiate with these people and see if some form of compromise can be struck.”
The gathered were shocked to silence as Princess Rebekah leapt up from her throne and charged to the center of the room.
“How can you compromise with the killers of the innocent?” she countered, voice rising with emotion. “How can you negotiate with those who strike without warning? Does life mean so little to you that you would place a price upon it? My father never would have even entertained such a thought.” Rebekah paused, looking around the room at the rulers. “I’m embarrassed to even think you would consider such an action,” she declared.
Ashbel was stung by the accusation. “But your father is NOT here, is he?” the king spoke curtly with a hint of anger in his voice. “No, he is off in other lands on some adventure while WE are left here to determine the course of all OUR lands. He weakened these lands by stripping it of our best troops and so now we must act with what we have. Long has it been since we have seen the Golden Sword milady. Much has changed.”
The princess, feeling the full force of the rebuke, began to wilt under the glare of the sharp-featured man.
Looking from the princess to the queen Asbel sneered. “Besides, I did not think that you, princess, were determining policy for Carnelian. Thus, unless you have any more ‘insights’ to add, I suggest we continue.”
Reprimanded and humiliated, Princess Rebekah silently slunk back to her throne and sat down.
Ashbel, a look of triumph on his face, carried on with his course of thought. “Now we know these creatures are contained in Ja’Sper. That is good. We must look to contain them while our plan is developed and while we attempt to make contact with them. When this is done perhaps we will better be able to understand them and they us.”
Heads began to nod in agreement to this general plan of action since in reality most were looking for a solution beyond the one that at first had been so overwhelming to them. Those who knew that action was the only possible course were shocked, not knowing how to respond. The willingness of others not facing danger to willingly barter with their would-be oppressors could not be comprehended.
King Naeman joined with Ashbel, speaking as if this was the sanctioned course of action, rather than a proposal. In truth at this point it seemed that Jashud and the others had lost the momentum for action. Pragmatism was winning the day.
“The key really,” Naeman began in an almost bored tone, “is the fact that these encroachers are contained largely in Ja’Sper. The loss of those lands is regrettable but we can address that situation in good time. I do think though the council owes a debt of gratitude to our friend Jashud for his excellent actions at the Stone Bridge to ensure this has happened.”
“I would propose a vote of thanks to him for this service,” the bejeweled King of Sardonyx added for good measure with an air of condescension.
While others added their voice of approval Jashud snorted in disgust. Rubbing his face with a beefy hand, he was unsure what to do.
Mitt Cela, had observed the whole meeting from the Visitor’s Gallery. Feeling sick to his stomach at what he’d witnessed the bounty hunter could barely contain himself. Desperately he wanted to speak but knew he had no voice in the council. Sitting in stunned silence, he couldn’t believe the course they were on.
After the group settled down Ashbel carried on. “The only way that anyone can enter into our Confederation in numbers is through the Pass of Timnach. Any other course will allow for but a trickle so I cannot imagine the numbers or penetration too great at this point.” Then looking at King Arod of Amethyst, the leader of Chrysolite concluded, “Thus the key becomes the Fortress of Timnach.”
“I reinforced the garrison at the fortress before I came here,” Arod replied timidly, the soft king seeking approval for the action from his tone.
Ashbel stood and shook the man’s hand, a look of satisfaction on his face. “Excellent work faithful Arod.” With a broad smile, the clever king began his conclusion with a high air, “I am with Naeman on this. Our counterparts are contained. Envoys should be sent to open dialogue and seek some form of peaceful resolution. Besides, how does what they are doing profit them? It doesn’t. Once we understand them, and they us, I’m certain we can end this,” he stated confidently. Then to encourage the group Ashbel declared, “No, we need not fear, they will only be able to enter in at a dribble through the gullies and valleys of the Tartarus. The fortress at the Pass of Timnach will keep the main route closed thus allowing us to enact our proper response.”
“The fortress at Timnach has fallen.”
All eyes turned to face the tired sounding voice that had uttered the stunning news. An air of foreboding filled the stately room that only moments before had held such hope
Mitt Cela was shocked to see Captain Hai’asi, clothes stained from riding and shoulders sagging with fatigue standing there. He, and everyone else, had thought the warrior was still at Stone Bridge with Tiglath and the others.
“What?” whispered King Arod in disbelief. “There were four hundred well armed and supplied men at the fortress. How could this be?”
“All slaughtered,” Hai’asi replied without emotion. “I don’t know how Your Majesty but I did see it from a distance.”
“Commander Tiglath had dispatched my men and I to follow a party of the vermin who’d broken off and were heading south along the river,” he explained seeing the looks of confusion on the faces of some. “They grew in number, swept through the village of Karak and couldn’t be stopped. Then, likely in concert with others, the whole body fell upon the fortress. What I do know is the horde was advancing steadily towards our capital when we withdrew. I fear it may have fallen as well by now.”
“My…my kingdom,” Arod spoke, tears welling in his eyes.
Hai’asi ignored his crumbling monarch. “I rode without stopping directly here to warn of this. I also saw signs they were heading east as well in strong numbers towards Jacinth and the main East-West turnpike.”
Staggered silence filled the room. Everything had changed.
King Machir voiced the thoughts of most. “What are we going to do? Who are these attackers and what is their purpose?”
Ashbel tried to speak, to respond to this, but he too was numbed by the news. Opening his mouth, the withering looks from Jashud and Machir held him to silence.
King Jashud took charge. “We must know more,” he stated forcefully, “on that Naeman is correct. I never have seen nor heard of any such creature. Yes, we must know.” Then turning to the visitor’s gallery he asked the man who wanted so badly to be involved, “Mitt Cela, what can you add anything?“
The bounty hunter, who had sprang from his chair to assist Hai’asi in sitting down, paused and thought for a moment. “Your Majesties, I have witnessed them in action. I know where they come from, what they look like and how they’re armed. But I don’t know who they are and why they act as they do. I don’t know their motivation or what drives them. In short, I can, and will, help you on the field but in the council chambers I’m of little use.”
Jashud and the others were impressed by the honesty of the roughly dressed man who seemed so out of place among the finery of the assembled. “Well said sir,” the King of S’Apphire stated. “We can and will need your help in the days to come I fear.”
The burly king turned to the collected Royal Advisors, who heretofore had silently sat in their special gallery in the chamber. “You there. All of you who we pay so much to keep us advised,” he called out. “Who are these creatures? What do they want? And most importantly, how do we stop them?”
The advisors looked at each other uncomfortably. A few attempted to stammer out safe answers, but none would commit. In truth none knew and they were as scared of this threat as the leaders were beginning to be.
“Phew,” Jashud spat out in frustration. “Overpaid stuffed shirts! Is there no one here among all the great minds of our lands,” his voice boomed, “that can help us?”
“I know someone who can,” a voice confidently answered from the Scribe’s Bench.